Tag Archives: MustSee

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

Sense8 (Finale)

[4.5 stars]

I originally wasn’t  going to bother writing up this late add-on to Sense8. In fact, I had avoided it fearing a huge let-down. The show was cancelled and this was a nod by Netflix to not totally tick off the fans. Who knew what it would manage to do in a single episode wrap-up?

BUT, I needn’t have worried. This was a fabulous and breathless finale that ran 2.5 hours without a moment’s hesitation or break, and ends with a complete wrap up and sense of release (literally). While I still preferred the first series’ approach to the multi-cultural and multi-language issues, this finale managed to find a balance in language and culture that the second series missed in moving to all English.

If you waited like me, I do recommend rewatching the final episode (You Want a War) in the regular series to retrench you on where things were. The finale picks up directly and carries on from there. Yes, it is a bit rushed and, yes, the final image could be debated, but overall it was an amazing effort. The result compacts a huge vision into a small space in order to explain and complete the story that was intended to stretch over seasons. Honestly, it is the best we could have hoped for given the circumstances, even as we mourn what might have been for the series had it continued.

Sense8 is one of the most audacious and amazing bits of television, let alone science fiction, to ever grace the screen. The Wachowski’s, Straczynski, and Netflix (not to mention Tykwer) all need to be thanked for their bravery and talent in creating it. Someday it will be recognized for the seminal event it is, but for now, for those of us who discovered and can enjoy it, we should celebrate it and its message of hope and love.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

[4.5 stars]

Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom)  has put together a lo-fi cure for hopelessness in these dark and desperate times. This is not a flashy film. It is full of old, grainy footage, talking heads, and simple conversations, much like Fred Roger’s shows. And yet it is profoundly powerful, like watching old, previously lost films from the attic of your childhood or of your family (or the family you wish you had).

If you grew up on Roger’s shows, it is easy to miss how subversive they were. This is especially true if you watched them from the beginning in the late 60’s. His willingness to discuss hard subjects with children, his inherent belief that children were people capable of understanding and, more importantly, were wells of potential goodness in the world was unlike anyone else in the media. Both he and his show embodied that in the tone, the pace, and the simplicity of its presentation. Reflecting on those shows, the events surrounding them, and his philosophy is to acknowledge something we’ve lost.

Not that it really matters, but given it has been 15 years since Roger’s passing, I did wonder about the impetus for this documentary. Part way through the movie, I think I got my answer when Yo-Yo Ma made an appearance; Yo-Yo Ma and Rogers were long-time friends. My guess is that Neville was inspired during the creation of The Music of Strangers to look at Rogers as a subject. The timing of the release may well be happenstance, but I expect it is, in part, in recognition of how far society in this country has drifted from Roger’s simple ministry of ideals and hopes.

Personally, I went into this film despondent over the last week in the news. Shattered, actually. Won’t You Be My Neighbor gave me back a sense of hope, but not in a blind way. Roger’s moment fighting for PBS in Congress subtly sums up so much of what has gone wrong in this country and shows that it could be something else…because it once was. It is a perfect film for a troubled time as a reminder of what we are capable of and how we should approach people and the world and, yes, even politics.

[If you want to see just how low I had gotten prior to this film, you can read When Hyberbole Meets Axis (password: politicalplace)]

Won

RBG

[4 stars]

Legal icon. Trailblazer. Intellectual champion. Übermensch. Octogenarian superstar. Notorious RBG has earned her moniker and the respect of multiple generations. Quietly and steadily, this unassuming 5′ 4″, soft-spoken woman reset the course of law in this country in support of equal rights for all. It is story that will give you hope in these divisive and regressive times…and really make you wonder how we went from people of her caliber to nominations like the decidedly unqualified and poorly spoken Gorsuch,  or 45 (not that I have an opinion there).

As a documentary, this is a fairly straight-forward recounting of Ginsburg’s life and career and the steps that have led her to be such a loud voice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Some you probably know, a lot you probably don’t. There is little subtlety to the film, but there is great respect and a surprising range of voices in her corner. The film-makers go out of their way to avoid too much controversy, which is a bit of a shame. Given that the Red Scare is the reason Ginsburg is a judge, and particularly a judge focused on civil liberties, they had an opportunity to create something a bit more pointed for the present day. As it is, there are hints and nods, but it is generally very matter-of-fact with some delightful peeks at her family life and out-of-court persona.

RBG is worth seeing just to get a sense of history and change that has occurred over the last 50 years; a lot of it very good. It is important to remember there has been movement…and just as important to remember you must always defend the gains lest people take them away. With stalwarts like RBG still on the bench, at least we have her voice when things go in the wrong direction. Sometimes that voice alone is enough to move mountains…just ask Lilly Ledbetter. And that is comforting.

RBG

The Leisure Seeker

[4.5 stars]

Forgive me, I’m going to kvell a little. It just isn’t all that often that a movie grabs me so completely. Director and co-writer Paolo Virzì (Like Crazy) delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love and life that will suck you in and wring you dry;  a wonderful, emotional canon which I highly recommend for any movie lover or romantic. It is both obvious and subtle, tackling aspects of age and marriage in wonderfully real ways. But it is relationship that takes the fore, with the ailments that ultimately drive the story very much in the background rather than the front and center focus of other films, like Still Alice or, for that matter, Marjorie Prime or The Memory of a Killer.

Virzì gifts us with a set of performances and story that quietly grips you from the moment it begins and refuses to let you go until the last, triumphant moment. It is both a tragedy and a comedy, a love story and a tale of glory (in its way). It is inevitable and unavoidable, but the path and the revelations are constantly surprising. The resulting film and performances are already up for awards this year, but will likely be forgotten for the majors since it released so early though I hope it won’t be.

Though Helen Mirren (Winchester) dominates the screen throughout, it is Donald Sutherland’s (The Calling) quiet performance and moments of shift that make this a devastating and emotional film. In a wonderful bit of direction, Janel Moloney (American Crime), as their daughter, delivers a performance that mirrors Sutherland’s in many ways.

I will admit, it isn’t quite a perfect movie, though it is close. It chooses to nail itself down in time to the summer of 2016 irrevocably for reasons I never quite puzzled out. And Christian McKay’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) turn as Mirren and Sutherland’s son is just slightly off, never quite fitting into the movie as a whole. Neither choice ruins the movie, but it knocks it down just a notch in my rating and recommendation.

But this is a must-see film for film lovers and anyone with either elderly family members or those in or above middle-age. It is a reminder of why we struggle and why we love. It is, above all, an homage to marriage and relationships, with all their warts and shine. You will laugh a lot, cry a lot, and ultimately smile as you leave the theater.

The Leisure Seeker

Love, Simon

[4.5 stars]

Simon delivers in the most wonderful ways and still finds a core truth to make it work. In fact, my theater broke into applause more than once during the movie (once at the penultimate moment we’d been waiting for and once at the end credits). In the last 20 years I can only think of a few films that got genuine, spontaneous applause in a general viewing, so that’s saying something.

Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) does a great job embodying Becky Albertalli’s title character from her book. He gives us a Simon that is easy to like and understand, not to mention who you want to slap silly for his missteps (and then forgive him all the same). There is no nod or wink, he simply is a teenager dealing with life.

Robinson is helped along with a collection of other young actors, all dealing with life in their own ways. Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Brigsby Bear) complete the core group of friends. Logan Miller (Before I Fall), Keiynan Lonsdale (Legends of Tomorrow), Miles Heizer (13 Reasons Why), and Clark Moore are all nice additions around the rest of the tale.

Jennifer Garner (Men, Women, Children) and Josh Duhamel (Unsolved: Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.), as Simon’s parents strike just the right tone for this somewhat idealized, gee-I-wish-this-had-been-my-home feel. I dare you to make it through their critical scenes without shedding tears. Even Tony Hale’s (American Ultra) over-the-top Vice Principal manages to strike a tone that works for the story.

Speaking of tone, director Greg Berlanti did a brilliant job with that throughout, no doubt helped by his extensive background as a producer and writer. He took what writing team Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (This is Us, About a Boy) delivered and made it sing. Their script manages to tease out the humor and the emotions without wallowing. As a first feature film script, they also proved they can leap media. And, as a team, Love, Simon brings us the first major, main-stream release of a gay rom-com to screen. That it is aimed at teens should be no surprise since that generation is significantly less judgmental than most of their parents. The irony is that on a personal level, the struggle is still the same in any generation; coming into your own is never easy.

Which means there is both a specific truth and a general truth to this story, which is what makes it so wonderfully universal. The specific truth, the stress of coming out as a teenager, is the written core of this relatively faithful adaptation. But different is different in High School, regardless of what that difference is. And, of course, we all feel “different.” That is the general truth.

Go see this movie. Admit going in that when you see a film like this, you are accepting a contract to be manipulated. You do so not only willingly, but with the desire for the release. But it is wonderful and uplifting and, no matter how manipulated or idealized, it feels true or like you want it to be true. It is well acted and well delivered and will leave you holding someone close to you and grateful for having them in your life.

Love, Simon

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

[2.5 stars]

With most of the stoopid science behind them, this finale is basically a lot of great action sequences, with a couple good moments, and some questionable script and acting. Enough for an evening’s entertainment? Well, that would be up to you. The ride, from the get go, is pretty unrelenting. As a story, this popcorner held together way better than the first two; motivations were mostly clear and mostly made sense. Satisfying? Eh. I never was able to read past the first book of the series myself (the science and plot were just so poorly thought through), so I’m clearly not the target audience.

You may have noticed I used “mostly” a good deal in my comments. There are still some truly horrendous moments of bad science, plotting, and dialogue. However, relative to its earlier installments, it is a huge leap forward.

What is sad is that these young actors, from Dylan O’Brien (The First Time), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), Will Poulter (The Revenant), Rosa Salazar (The Scorch Trials), Ki Hong Lee (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and Kaya Scodelario (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales),  to the adults Giancarlo Esposito (Money Monster), Patricia Clarkson (Learning to Drive), Barry Pepper (The Lone Ranger), Aidan Gillen (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), and Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) are all capable. Of this rather packed list, only Salazar, Esposito and Goggins have any real moments in the final cut and they are minor characters. The rest are just going through their paces and getting through the script. They aren’t awful, but nothing pops out as emotionally effective, which is a crime at the end of a trilogy. You may have hated how Hunger Games finaled, but you can’t claim it didn’t have emotional punch.

There are also a few craft issues. First and foremost, directors have to learn that when you’re going to do an IMAX release, that any hand-held camera work you have should be cut by 30%-50% from what you think you want to do. The size of the screen amplifies movement and a shaky cam gets quickly unwatchable. Maze isn’t the first offender, or even the worst (which was Hunger Games), but somehow it still keeps happening. Then there were the costuming issues. Let’s just say that the lower class and the kids were way too clean and crisp for people living in the streets and that having female scientists in 4″ heels was, well, a bit out of touch these days (forgetting how absurd it was).

If you’re hooked or a mega-fan, you’ll probably enjoy this wind up. Frankly, as a film series, I’d have liked to see at least an attempt at a better script and more than a passing attempt to make a movie rather than a glorified and stitched together series of action sequences. If there is anything that films like Jumanji have taught the industry in the last year, you can have your cake and eat it too when it comes to silly action films. A good script pays massive dividends; pretty pictures alone only works some of the time (witness films like Avatar). While Death Cure didn’t make me wish for the big sleep, I can’t say I’d ever need to see this hobbled piece of trifle again.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

The Post

[3 stars]

As I prepped for the Women’s March, and only a day after the current president launched The Fakies, making time for The Post seemed both a necessity and a wonderful warm-up for the cause. The Post is a phenomenally important movie and message. I’ll get to the rating later.

This is Meryl Streep’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) story, without question. It is that extra layer of her coming into her own that really makes the film. But, surprisingly, while Tom Hanks (Inferno) , may share the marquis with her, it is really her relationship with Tracy Letts (Lady Bird) that is the flash point for her evolution; and his character enjoys that moment immensely.

There are a slew of other solid performances as well. Bob Odenkirk (Hell and Back) and Bruce Greenwood (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), for instance. But it is Bradley Whitford (Get Out) that stood out for me. His weasley Arthur Parsons was a study, mostly, in subtlety and restraint as an actor. And, though the performance isn’t particularly noteworthy, Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name) makes his fourth appearance in a top film this year; we should all have such a good agent working on our behalf!

While Streep’s character rules the story, it is the papers and message that rule the plot. This is clear in the way the Speilberg (The BFG) directs the shots and provides focus, often following the papers rather than the people. His message and warnings are clear about where we are today and what we cannot ever allow to happen. And the final moments slam that home with almost embarrassing abandon.  But I have to tell you, we were all clapping come the final credits and when is the last time that happened in a movie for you? It wasn’t quite the hopeful rush that V for Vendetta brought to me during the W years, but, then again, this wasn’t a movie of hope, it was a call to arms.

All the import aside, it is only, really, a middling movie on its own. Much like Bridge of Spies, it feels somewhat sanitized. There is no grit and grime like, say, Roman J. Israel, Esq. had. It sometimes felt more like the memory of an era rather than the time itself. The beats, even if you don’t know the history, are all pretty predictable. The moments that stand out are the moments that show us Streep’s world and reality (and a couple will take the air out of your sails). But her transitions aren’t very crisp…you see them and know they happen, but I never saw the “moment” it clicked over only the moment before and after. Perhaps more of the blame belongs to fairly fresh writers Hannah and Singer, but it was still Spielberg’s to bring to life.

So yes, see it. You must. If not for the performances, for the reminder and for the energy to act. It is most certainly not a waste of your time even if it isn’t the instant classic of The Paper Chase (which would make a great double feature).

See you at the March, I hope…

The Post

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

[4 stars]

Awards season is off to a heck of a start, if Lady Bird and this film are any indication. Both are solid depictions of life with incredible casts and great film-making. In this case, writer/director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) delicately balances a challenging story without devolving into melodrama or nihilism. He creates a real world, painted mostly in grays, that doesn’t drown in its own bile; there is humor in the dark and there is truth in the extreme. In fact, it is a story that probably has come out at the right time to find its audience.

The movie is also a brilliant platform for Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!). She delivers an amazing performance in a long career of strong, put-upon women. Despite many of her characters coming from the same bucket, McDormand continues to find unique ways to bring these people to life. And, as is often the case, she dominates the film.

But McDormand is not alone in delivering. There is a solid ensemble around her navigating a complicated set of creations. Woody Harrelson (The Glass Castle) tops that group. In recent years his characters have been getting more nuanced, and Chief Willoughby may top them all. If it weren’t for McDormand’s incredible presence, he might have easily taken over the film himself. Sam Rockwell (Laggies) also delivers one of his career finest. It isn’t perfect, but he manages a journey for the character that is unexpected and, for the most part, earned.

There is also a series of smaller, but essential roles. Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), Abbie Cornish (Robocop), Zeljko Ivanek (Madam Secretary), and Peter Dinklage (Rememory) each bring colors to the story. Every one of them gets at least a moment to shine and something new for their reels without detracting from the main story. And then there is Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) who is having a really great couple of years in terms of projects and who keeps growing as an actor.

Three Billboards is a challenging story, no matter how you slice it. It forces you to considerable unanswerable questions and unthinkable acts. But whether you appreciate the bones of the story or not, it is worth seeing it for the performances alone. It is, in fact, only the end and a little (a very little) of Rockwell’s performance that has me knocking a bit off my rating. Because of these aspects, the film isn’t quite perfect but, damn, it is visually stunning, emotionally powerful, and at a level of intelligence that is usually avoided.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

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